It seems that the leading consultation tool these days is a ‘Have your say’ online campaign. On the surface it appears to be a reasonable method to gain some of the opinions from a local community and is often used to justify spending millions of dollars on high profile projects. But who is voting and how do we know what the results really are? Who can vote on a local project and is there a limit on how many times anyone from anywhere might vote? Is this a trusted, authentic method of public participation?
Who is left out of this process? Most governments are steady users of online surveys and voting processes as part of their consultation and engagement strategy. Once upon a time people relied on community representation, public meetings and face to face consultation with elected representatives to ensure that local issues and priorities were reflected in at least local government agendas. While local governments may commit to open consultation with the community on the surface, there are questions about how some of these processes are managed and how they are presented to the community in online formats.
Surveys and questionnaires can often seem to have constructed outcomes to achieve a certain result and missing important facts. For example, a recent building renovation community survey neglected to mention that the actual building had to be demolished to achieve the options on offer. Some surveys have failed to have limits on how many times a person can vote which distorts the total number of people claimed as engaged. Without the ability to identify who is completing the survey, anyone from anywhere with any agenda can vote. Most online surveys have built in tools to limit a person to one vote but these options have to be activated by those who are running the survey.
How many people need to participate in a survey to sufficiently represent the community? Should it be at least 10% of the community? A few years ago, a local council’s minutes recorded that a total of 11 people had replied to a survey out of a community of 7000 to support a large municipal project. Is this sufficient representation from the community for consultation purposes? Is it ethical or fair to deduce that others who have not responded agree with the council’s proposed project? In many cases, the community at large are frequently unaware of these surveys until the earth movers roll in. As governments can often have an interest in a specific outcome, should the survey results be managed by a third party to maintain transparency and trust? How does the community really know how many votes are received, where they came from and whether any are discarded or dismissed?
Effective, ethical and transparent community consultation builds capacity, trust and resilience within communities and can assist councils in making good decisions on behalf of the community and reducing a backlash. Some local governments have used Council Section 86 or advisory committees, to represent the community. These committees can also have councillors, council staff or anyone that the council approves as a member. A Section 86 committee may be intended to provide a forum for local clubs, organisations, associations, community groups and residents in the township, village or locality. Unfortunately, many people have no awareness of this type of committee, its functions or the decisions being made.
Alternative community representation can include local incorporated associations which operate independently of government and encourage public participation and empowerment in local decision making. Often these types of independent committees can provide a richer balance and operate a more inclusive, transparent process in community decision making when working with the local or state government. Any municipal committee that does not include consultation and representation from diverse community groups as members risks being out of touch and not representative of the community.
Annual Community Satisfaction Surveys of councils have been conducted for the last 7 years by consultants under contract with the Victorian government. These community surveys have indicated significant declines in the community’s consultation ratings. Yet many local government community engagement policies are underpinned by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Engagement guidelines. These policies appear to conflict with the feedback and consultation ratings. Some councils have removed the section on empowerment altogether from their version of the IAP2 guidelines. The IAP2 core values which councils aspire to as a matter of policy include:
- The public should have a say in decisions about actions that could affect their lives
- Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision
- Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognising and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers
- Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision
- Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate
- Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way
- Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision
If the community loses trust in authentic, ethical public participation processes, then community opinions on engagement and consultation will continue their downward spiral. Communities should start asking themselves:
Is the community consultation process authentic, trustworthy and transparent?